By Serena Guentz

Contributing Writer

Local children ages 8 to 17 got the opportunity to get up close and personal with airplanes at the Santa Ynez Airport and even see the Santa Ynez Valley from above on Saturday, June 12, as part of the 2021 Young Eagles Day.

Young Eagles is a program with the national Experimental Aircraft Association that aims to introduce youth to aviation and inspire them by providing free flights to children.

The local EAA Chapter 491 in Santa Ynez held the free event on the morning of Saturday, June 12, which was also International Young Eagles Day.

EAA chapters around the country have flown over 2 million children during Young Eagles events.

“Flying is great, and I love to share the experience with as many people as possible,” said John Rodkey, president of the Santa Ynez EAA chapter.

Flights were about 20 minutes each over several areas in the valley, such as Lake Cachuma, the former Neverland Ranch, Buellton and more.

Five experienced pilots, all of which are volunteers with EAA, took 38 kids out on small-plane flights throughout the morning.

“It was great,” said 9-year-old Nathan Cortez. “At the start of it, I was a little scared and nervous.”

Nathan went on the flight with his 13-year-old brother Noah, who said it was their first time flying in a small plane like this.

Nathan said that he ended up enjoying the experience, and his favorite part was flying over Lake Cachuma.

Rodkey said that the Santa Ynez EAA chapter normally tries to host three to four Young Eagles events throughout the year, but COVID-19 prevented them from putting on events in the last year.

“It’s really great to do an event after COVID made it impossible,” Rodkey said.

Before the flights, pilot and volunteer Robert Perry, also known as “Captain Bob,” led pre-flight ground schools to explain the different parts of the planes and how they work.

“We want to pass this skillset on,” Perry said. “It’s important for aviation to have youngsters.”

During the ground school, Perry also discussed scholarships and some of the different careers that can fit into aviation, from pilots and engineers to artists and writers. 

“In the United States, there’s about 25 million kids between the ages eight and 18. If you believe that in the next 40 years an American will be the first person to step foot on Mars … at least one out of those 25 million kids will be the one to step foot on Mars,” Perry said. “We do this because we know what the investment in the future is.”

After the ground school, groups of kids were sent to volunteer Sam Burke, who walked them around an airplane, pointing out and explaining parts of the plane.

Burke said that the plane he was doing the walkaround with hasn’t flown in 14 years and the Santa Ynez EAA chapter has been restoring it.

“There’s a lot of things to fix, but I usually get kids involved so they can learn something,” Burke said.

During the flights, some pilots even let kids try out the controls of the airplane.

“I like to let the kids take control if they’re comfortable,” Rodkey said. “It’s really amazing to see how some kids get it and immediately know how to fly it seems.”

Volunteers said that this event can potentially be life-changing for children.

Carl Hopkins, a volunteer with EAA, said that about six to eight years ago, a group of “at-risk” youth from Santa Barbara came to a Young Eagles event and one kid, who had never flown before, was especially inspired by the event.

Hopkins said that he took the kid on a flight, who decided afterwards that aviation is what he wanted to do as a career in his life.

Hopkins said that he then became an apprentice airframe and powerplant mechanic in order to earn money for flight lessons to become a pilot.

“It literally turned his life around,” Hopkins said.

The Santa Ynez EAA chapter hopes to hold another event at the end of the summer, according to its website, and information can be found on the EAA Chapter 491 Santa Ynez Facebook page.